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Danaus and the Danaids in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 21, 2016

In Greek mythology, the concept of Tartarus being a place where eternal punishment was given out is well established; indeed the names of some inmates of Tartarus are well-known, including the likes of Ixion, Sisyphus and Tantalus.

The other often mentioned inmates of Tartarus are the Danaids, 49 daughters of Danaus, but just how the Danaids came to be in Tartarus is not exactly clear.

The Danaids

The Danaids - Martin Johann Schmidt (1718–1801) - PD-art-100
The Danaids - Martin Johann Schmidt (1718–1801) - PD-art-100 | Source

Danaus and the Danaids

The story of the daughters of Danaus begins in the lands that would become North Africa and the Middle East. Here Belus, great-grandson of Io, allocated lands to two of his sons, Danaus being given Libya and Aegyptus allocated Arabia.

All was well for a while and Danaus became father to 50 daughters by various women, whilst Aegyptus became father to 50 sons.

A combination of events though, would see Danaus and his daughters, the Danaids, flee to Greece. Firstly, Aegyptus would expand his territory into a region that would take his name, Egypt; then Aegyptus decided that his 50 sons would marry his 50 nieces, and finally, Danaus believed that Aegyptus’ 50 sons were plotting against him.

Danaus Comes to Greece

Danaus therefore built a large ship and, he, along with his daughters, boarded it, and set sail across the Mediterranean. The first stop for Danaus was on Rhodes, and several sanctuaries and settlements were built there, but Danaus did not wish to settle on Rhodes, and instead headed to Argos, the land of his ancestor Io.

Argos though at the time was ruled by Gelanor (or Pelasgus), but Danaus sought to usurp his rule. The decision about who would be king of Argos was given over to the people in the region, but whilst the decision was being considered the people witnessed a wolf killing a bull. The people of Argos saw Gelanor as the bull, and Danaus as the wolf, and so Danaus was elected king of Argos.

Danaus believed that the battle between beasts was a sign that Apollo had ordained his rule, and so the new king built a temple to the Olympian god. Danaus though was careful not to anger the other Olympian gods though, and monuments were also built to Zeus, Hera and Artemis.

Danaus would rule Argos, and the people would be known as Danaans as well as Argives.

The Sins of the Danaids

Eventually though, Aegyptus and his 50 sons tracked Danaus and his daughters to Argos. Danaus was fearful that a war would ensue, despite the fact that the sons of Aegyptus proclaimed their peaceful intentions. So, Danaus agreed to the marrying of his daughters to his nephews, and lots were drawn to see who would marry who.

Danaus though instructed each of his daughters to kill her husband on the first night that they were together; and to enable this, Danaus gave each of his daughters a sword.

So it passed that on the first night together, all the daughters of Danaus, bar one, cut off the heads of their new husbands; the head and bodes of the deceased sons of Aegyptus were then buried at Lerna. Aegyptus himself was not killed, but some writers would say that he died of grief at the loss of his sons.

The Danaid Hypermnestra

The one daughter who disobeyed her father was Hypermnestra, who did not kill her husband Lynceus, because he had not slept with her when she requested that he should not.

For her disobedience Hypermnestra would be briefly imprisoned, but possibly after the intervention of Aphrodite, the daughter of Danaus was reunited with Lynceus.

Of course the other 49 daughters of Danaus had committed heinous crimes, but Zeus himself decided that they should be absolved of blame, and so Zeus sent Hermes and Athena to undertake the absolution of the Danaids.

Danaus’ next problem was the fact that he had 49 unmarried daughters, and prospective husbands were proving hard to come by. Danaus therefore organised a race, and depending on the order that the male participants finished would enable them to choose one of the Danaids to wed.

The Kings of Argos

As to whether Danaus is punished for instigation the murder of his new sons-in-law is dependent on the version of the story being told. Some say how Lynceus killed his father-in-law in retribution for the murder of his brothers, and some say how Danaus died a natural death.

Lynceus though would take over the thrown of Argos from Danaus, and with Hypermnestra would bring forth a long line of Kings of Argos, a line that included the likes of Perseus and Diomedes.

The Danaids

The Danaids - John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) - PD-art-100
The Danaids - John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) - PD-art-100 | Source

The Danaids in Tartarus

Of course if the Danaids were absolved of their crimes by Hermes and Athena it does pose the question of how 49 Danaids came to be found in Tartarus; and in truth, there is no real explanation given. It did become commonplace to portray the Danaids in Tartarus.

In Tartarus, the Danaids would be shown carrying jugs of water to fill a bathtub so that their sins could be washed away. The bathtub though was full of holes, and so it could not hold the water poured into it, no matter how many jugs of water were carried. This punishment is in keeping with Sisyphus pushing of a rock uphill.

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